She is the most unexpected of pleasures--slender, dark-haired, with a voice like Mexican honey...and all of nine years old. When Nayeli Meza-Gallegos began to sing at the Cinco de Mayo celebration last month at El Tejado restaurant, forks full of refried beans and bottles of Pacifico beer halted mid-air, and even the well-seasoned mariachis playing backup seemed mesmerized and charmed.
Nayeli has a rich, strong voice, dead on-key and infused with a passion and drama well beyond her years. But even more remarkable is her stage presence--cool, poised and intense. When asked during a phone call to her home in Tlaquepaque, near Guadalajara, Mexico, whether she ever gets even a little bit nervous before her performances in Denver, she replies in a slightly husky voice, "Poquito."
"Everybody loves Nayeli," says Jaime Navarro, owner of the homey El Tejado. "It's too bad she lives in Mexico." But the young Jalisco star will spend a full week in Denver, singing each evening--for tips and a smile--from June 19 to June 27. On Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday she'll join Mariachi Jalisco, El Tejado's traditional brass-and-guitar house band, which exuberantly serenades each table in slim pants and boleros bedecked with silver medallions.
Although she's performed for only two years, Nayeli has loved to sing for as long as anyone can remember. When her older brother Luis was in kindergarten, she would join in on songs with him and his classmates even if she didn't know the words--and sometimes she'd make up her own lyrics. Her father, who plays the guitar, taught her "some old folk songs, since those are to my liking," he says. "She insisted on learning this style. At this point, she did not know how to read, but she learned the new songs."
Soon Nayeli had joined the church choir and was performing at parties for family and friends. Two and a half years ago, her parents found her a private vocal coach. Her teacher lined up a solo concert at a church, where Nayeli earned 300 pesos (about thirty dollars) for her work--and became a certified professional.
Since then, Nayeli has been invited by Tlaquepaque's mayor to sing at an annual town fiesta and twice has appeared on the TV program La Pandilla (Little Rascals). She has a regular Monday gig in Mexico and is developing a following in Denver, home of her uncle, Miguel Peniche, an enthusiastic booster. Nayeli uses the money she earns to cover her airfare, says Peniche, and takes back some cash to buy toys for the low-income children in her neighborhood.
Nayeli says her favorite musical style is ranchero, the Mexican version of country music, which incorporates plenty of nostalgia and humor and is punctuated by the occasional ay yay yay. When she performs at church, says Nayeli, she sings "sacred songs, and with much respect." But when she strolls past the dinner tables at El Tejado, introducing her American audiences to favorites like "Guadalajara" and "Mexico Lindo," the music is all about "having fun," she says, and it's "muy bonita."